Geffrye Museum – A journey through four centuries of domestic life in London

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Milica Sterjova
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Located in Shoreditch district in London, Geffrye Museum offers an amazing demonstration of life in the largest English city through the centuries. The museum buildings date from 1714 and they were originally almshouses. The museum was named after Sir Robert Geffrye who financed the construction of the almshouses. He was the Master of the Ironmongers Company and Lord Mayor of London.

About 200 years from the construction, the company decided to move the pensioners to another location, because the district was overpopulated and was becoming a quite unpleasant area to live in. The company sold the property to the London City Council in 1911, which decided to turn it into a museum three years later. The initial goal of the museum was to provide knowledge for local furniture manufacturers. Some 25 years later, the original idea evolved into a display of domestic life and house interiors.

There are 11 rooms in the museum, each one being a unique example of family life in England starting in the 1600s until today. They all contain characteristic furniture, lighting fixtures and paintings. According to the Museum, the rooms showcase the life of the London middle class, which would include doctors or lawyers in the 17th century and manufacturers from the 19th century.

The idea was that these professions were wealthy enough to afford a home in the city with all the necessary furnishings, making them a great example of preferences and style evolution. There is also a possibility to step into the 18th and 19th century almshouses, since one of the original ones was restored.

Parlor, 1695. Author: Davide D’Amico. CC BY-SA 2.0

Every room represents a detailed time capsule, covering every aspect of domestic life, from interior decoration to home entertainment. The earliest room in the museum is a 1630 hall which was the center of the household, where the family spent a lot of time and where they received their guests.

Parlor 1745. Author: Davide D’Amico. CC BY-SA 2.0

It was furnished based on a drawing of a house that managed to survive the 1666 Great Fire of London. The next one is a 17th century parlor, which was less active than the previous century hall. The family gathered here and had their meals.

Parlor, 1790. Author: Davide D’Amico. CC BY-SA 2.0

In the 17th and 18th century, the parlors had the almost exactly the same function. The 1830 drawing room was where members of the family would spend time reading or painting. The term drawing room is shortened from withdrawing room or withdrawing chamber, as this was the place,  in upper-class houses, to where the ladies would withdraw after dining. It would also be used to receive guests during the daytime. By the late 18th century middle class people also had these rooms in their homes. The drawing room generally has a large table usually in the middle. It was common for the furniture and walls to have the same colors.

A drawing room from 1830. Author: Davide D’Amico. CC BY-SA 2.0

The last room from the 19th century dates from 1890, when the Aesthetic Movement had a major influence on home decor, introducing new and original patterns.

1910 drawing room. Author: Jeremy A.A. Knight. CC BY 2.0

The next century starts with a room from 1910, which was inspired by a North London suburban house. This drawing room is a perfect example of how the 20th-century decor was intended to make the room more comfortable for daily use as opposed to the previous eras suited for special occasions.

1935 living room. Author: Jeremy A.A. Knight. CC BY 2.0

The 1935 room is a representation of a flat decorated in the Modern style; there are fewer furniture pieces, and the colors of the furniture and walls are more neutral. Scandinavian style influences the decor of the 1965 room which has white walls and simple wooden furniture. This is the time period where the television set was becoming a focal point in the room.

1965 living room during Christmas holidays. Author: sam.romilly. CC BY 2.0

The most recent room dates from 1998 and it is an example of a loft-style London apartment, typical for the era. The kitchen is connected to the living room which remains a common feature in contemporary apartments of the same kind.

1998 loft-style apartment. Author: Cmglee. CC BY-SA 4.0

Another great feature of the museum are the gardens. They share the same characteristics with the rooms – arranged in chronological order, they demonstrate how urban gardening progressed starting with the 17th century. Based on information from the matching period, the gardens are as close as possible to the originals.

A view of the garden. Author: Neil McCrae. CC BY 2.0

During the Christmas holidays, all the rooms change their appearance. They are decorated as they would have been in the past, offering a chance to experience Christmas celebrations from centuries ago. The Geffrye Museum period rooms, garden and the restored almshouse are open for visits.